Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Ghost Worship and Tree Worship I
|←Habits of the Garter Snake|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 February 1893 (1893)
Ghost Worship and Tree Worship I
By Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen
By GRANT ALLEN.
FROM the myth of Attis itself, with its strange old-world implications, let us turn our attention next to the more general subject of plant and tree worship, of which the special case of the Phrygian god would appear to be only a particular example.
It will be evident at once from what has gone before that I accept on the whole, without reservation of any kind, Mr. Frazer's main view as to the importance of tree spirits and the soul of vegetation in early religions. But, then, I also accept as proved almost beyond the possibility of doubt Mr. Herbert Spencer's luminous theory of the origin of polytheism from ghost worship and ancestor worship. Not only do I believe that Mr. Spencer has adequately made good his main thesis of the derivation of gods from heroic ancestors, but I have also received considerable encouragement in my faith to this effect, from Mr. William Simpson's brilliant and admirable paper on The Worship of Death, a paper much less widely known among thinkers on this subject than it deserves to be. Mr. Simpson, who is the wellknown special artist of the Illustrated London News, has been led by his direct observations in the many lands he has visited in the performance of his duties to form independently a theory identical in every essential respect with Mr. Herbert Spencer's. Examination of temples, or their equivalents, in endless lands, from China to Peru, has convinced him at last that in almost every case the temple begins as a tomb or shrine of a dead person, and the worship is primarily offered to the actual ghost of the man or woman interred within it.
Now, between these two views—Mr. Spencer's and Mr. Frazer's—I am aware there would appear at first sight to be an immense discrepancy. I believe Mr. Frazer himself, in particular, would regard them as nothing short of absolutely irreconcilable. To judge from one pregnant passage in The Golden Bough (vol. i, p. 253), Mr. Frazer would appear to hold that the earliest gods of mankind in the hunting and pastoral stage of society took the form of animals, and that, in the agricultural stage, gods were envisaged rather as corn or fruit trees, or assumed the shape of a human being representing the corn or fruit spirit. I can find nowhere in any part of his epoch-making work a single phrase which would lead me to suppose he would willingly accept the theory of the affiliation of tree gods and spirits generally upon the ghosts of dead ancestors. Nevertheless, I believe such an affiliation to be not only possible, but natural and provable. It is the object of the present Excursus, indeed, to show in brief outline that the tree spirit and the corn spirit, like most other deities, originate in the ghost of the deified ancestor.
Let us begin by examining and endeavoring to understand a few cases of tree spirits in various mythologies. Virgil tells us in the Third Æneid how, on a certain occasion, Æeas was offering a sacrifice on a tumulus crowned with dogwood and myrtle bushes. He endeavored to pluck up some of these by the roots, in order to cover the altar, as was customary, with leaf-clad branches. As he did so, the first bush which he tore up astounded him by exuding drops of liquid blood, which trickled and fell upon the soil beneath. He tried again, and again the tree bled human gore. On the third trial, a groan was heard proceeding from the tumulus, and a voice assured Æneas that the barrow on which he stood covered the murdered remains of his friend Polydorus.
Now, in this typical and highly illustrative myth—no doubt an ancient and well-known story incorporated by Virgil in his great poem—we see that the tree which grows upon a barrow is itself regarded as the representative and embodiment of the dead man's soul, just as elsewhere the snake which glides from the tomb of Anchises is regarded as the embodied spirit of the hero, and just as the owls and bats which haunt sepulchral caves are often identified in all parts of the world with the souls of the departed.
Similar stories of bleeding or speaking trees or bushes occur abundantly elsewhere. "When the oak is being felled," says Aubrey, in his Remaines of Gentilisme, page 247, "it gives a kind of shriekes and groanes that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oak lamenting. E. Wyld, Esqr., hath heard it severall times." Certain Indians, says Bastian, dare not cut a particular plant, because there comes out of it a red juice which they take for its blood. I myself remember hearing as a boy in Canada that wherever Sanguinaria canadensis, the common American bloodroot, grew in the woods, an Indian had once been buried, and that the red drops of juice which exuded from the stem when one picked the flowers were the dead man's blood. In Samoa, says Mr. Turner, the special abode of Tuifiti, King of Fiji, was a grove of large and durable afzelia trees. "No one dared to cut that timber. A story is told of a party from Upolu who once attempted it, and the consequence was that blood flowed from the tree, and that the sacrilegious strangers all took ill and died." Till 1855, says Mannhardt, there was a sacred larch tree at Nauders in the Tyrol, which was thought to bleed whenever it was cut. In some of these cases, it is true, we do not know that the trees grew on tumuli, but this point is specially noticed about Polydorus's dogwood, and is probably implied in the Samoan case, as I gather from the title given to the spirit as King of Fiji.
In other instances, however, this doubt does not exist; we are expressly told it is the souls of the dead which are believed to animate the bleeding or speaking trees. "The Dieyerie tribe of South Australia," says Mr. Frazer, "regard as very sacred certain trees which are supposed to be their fathers transformed; hence they will not cut the trees down, and protest against settlers doing so."
Again, we must remember that most early worship is offered directly to the spirits of ancestors in the expectation of definite benefits to be derived from their aid. In New Guinea, for example, where religion has hardly progressed at all beyond the most primitive stage of direct ancestor worship, Mr. Chalmers tells us "when the natives begin planting, they first take a bunch of bananas and sugar cane, and go to the center of the plantation and call over the names of the dead belonging to their family, adding, 'There is your food, your bananas and sugar cane; let our food grow well and let it be plentiful. If it does not grow well and plentifully you all will be full of shame, and so shall we.' "
Abundant other evidence could be forthcoming, were it necessary, to show that the ancestral spirits are regarded by the most primitive types of men as causing the earth to bring forth fruit in due season. But I hardly think further formal proof of this proposition necessary.
But how did the ancestral ghosts acquire in the first instance this peculiar power of causing growth in vegetation? The explanation, it seems to me, though crude and barbaric, is a very simple and natural one. In the first place, in many of the earlier and more native forms of sepulture, the dead are buried under a tumulus or barrow. Such tumuli, of course, go back in time to a remote antiquity. Now, many circumstances would make vegetation upon the turf of the barrows exceptionally luxuriant. In the first place, the soil there has been largely piled up and labored; it consists for the most part of an accumulation of deep vegetable mold, gathered together from all the surrounding surface; and at an age when cultivation was wholly unknown—for tumuli, we have reason to know from the example of Ohio, began in the hunting stage of humanity—the burial mound would be almost certainly conspicuous, from this cause alone, for its exceptional greenness. In the second place, again, the body within would add to its fertility, the more so as a great chief was seldom committed to the tomb alone, but was usually accompanied to the grave, whose megalithic stone chamber was to serve as his future palace, by his slaves, his wives, and his other belongings. In the third place, too, animals would be slaughtered, and feasts would take place at the newly made barrow. The blood of the victims on such occasions is habitually poured out on the grave, or on the surface of the altar stone; offerings of meat, of fruit, of milk, of oil, are made there in abundance by trembling worshipers. These offerings would act, of course, as rich manures, and would encourage on the barrows an unusual wealth and luxuriance of vegetation. But primitive man knows nothing of the nature and action of manure. To him, the fact that grass grew greener and bushes spread faster on the tumulus of the dead would almost inevitably appear as an effect immediately due to the supernatural power of the ghost or spirit who dwelt within it. In all probability, the savage would envisage to himself the actual herbs and shrubs which so sprang upon the tumulus as the direct embodiment of the soul of his ancestor, or his departed chieftain.
Now, it could hardly be expected that any direct evidence of so abstruse a point as this would be forthcoming from books or the accounts of travelers. Yet, fortunately, however, I have been lucky enough to hit in an unexpected place upon one curious little bit of actual confirmation of this a priori suggestion. In his excellent work on Nether Lochaber, the Rev. Alexander Stewart, of Ballachulish, quotes and translates a Gaelic MSS. poem, collected by Mr. Macdonald, the minister of the parish of Fortingall, in Perthshire, one stanza of which runs as follows:
"And ever he saw that his maidens paid
Upon this suggestive verse Mr. Stewart makes a curious and important comment.
"The allusion to paying—
'The fairies their due on the fairy knowe,'
has reference to the custom, common enough on the western mainland and in some of the Hebrides some fifty years ago, and not altogether unknown perhaps even at the present day, of each maiden's pouring from her cumanbleoghain, or milking pail, evening and morning, on the fairy knowe, a little of the newdrawn milk from the cow, by way of propitiating the favor of the good people, and as a tribute the wisest, it was deemed, and most acceptable that could be rendered, and sooner or later sure to be repaid a thousandfold. The consequence was that these fairy knolls were clothed with a richer and more beautiful verdure than any other spot, howe or knowe, in the country, and the lacteal riches imbibed by the soil through this custom is even now visible in the vivid emerald green of a shian or fairy knoll whenever it is pointed out to you. This custom of pouring lacteal libations to the fairies on a particular spot deemed sacred to them, was known and practiced at some of the summer shielings in Lochaber within the memory of the people now living."
Fully to appreciate the importance of this evidence we must remember that in almost every case, all over Britain, the "fairy knowe" is a chambered barrow, and that the fairies who emerge from it are the last fading relics in popular memory of the ghosts of stone age chiefs and chieftainesses. This idea, which I long ago put forward in an article in the Cornhill Magazine, entitled Who are the Fairies? has been proved to demonstration by Mr. Joseph Jacobs in the notes on the story of Childe Roland in his valuable collection of English Fairy Tales.
There is yet another way, however, in which the idea of special fertility must become necessarily connected in the savage mind with the graves of his ancestors. For we must remember that early worship almost invariably takes the form of offerings in kind at the tombs of dead chiefs or other revered persons. On this subject the Rev. Duff Macdonald, of Blantyre, in Central Africa (one of the ablest and most unprejudiced of missionary observers), says very significantly: "The ordinary offerings to the gods were just the ordinary food of the people. The spirit of the deceased man is called Mulungu, and all the prayers and offerings of the living are presented to such spirits of the dead. It is here that we find the great center of native religion. The spirits of the dead are the gods of the living. It is the great tree at the veranda of the dead man's house that is their temple, and if no tree grow here they erect a little shade, and there perform their simple rites. If this spot become too public the offerings may be defiled, and the sanctuary will be removed to some carefully selected spot under some beautiful tree." In this we get some first hint of the origin of tree worship.
Now, the ordinary food of the living would of course include grains, seeds, such fruits as bananas, plantains, or melons, and many other vegetable objects. Mr. Macdonald adds the significant note: "It is not considered necessary that these offerings be taken away by the spirits. It is sufficient that they are placed there, that the spirits may come and lick them." He further mentions that on these same graves fowls may be offered by cutting the throat, and making the blood flow down. "When the fowl is killed," says he, "they simply lay it down at the prayer tree." A goat may be offered in the same way, or milk may be poured out at the foot of the sacred banyan. What is the implication? Why, naturally, seeds placed in newly turned soil over a dead body, and richly manured with constant supplies of blood and milk, would germinate freely and produce unusually fine crops of grain or fruit. Is it suggesting too much to hint that, in this almost universal rite, we may even see the ultimate origin of cultivation? Primitive man, careless of the future as he is, would scarcely be likely deliberately to retain seeds from one year to the next for the purpose of sowing them. It is his habit rather to eat and destroy with lavish prodigality whatever he possesses in the pure recklessness of the moment. Something must first show him that seeds produce an increase before he can think of keeping them and deliberately planting them.
It has usually been held, to be sure, that cultivation must have taken its rise from the accident of chance seeds being scattered about in the neighborhood of the hut or of the domestic manure-heap—the barbaric kitchen midden. This may be so, of course; but it seems to me at least equally probable that cultivation should have begun through the offerings of grains and fruits and seeds at the graves or barrows of departed ancestors. Certainly we see that fruits and seeds are constantly so offered by existing savages. We know that they are deposited under conditions most favorable to their growth and productivity. And we can hardly doubt that the luxuriance of the vegetation so produced would greatly strike the mind of the early savage, and would be implicitly assigned to the productive power of his dead ancestors. I shall show in the sequel that the presence of an informing ghost or spirit of vegetation is even considered essential to the growth of crops by existing savages, and that human victims are slain by them for the mere purpose of providing such indwelling deities. The ghost in fact plays in the ideas of early man the same part that guano and phosphates play to-day in the ideas of the educated scientific farmer.
Nor is this all; I will even venture to go one step further. Is it not at least possible that in the minds of early men the fruitfulness of the sown crop may seem to depend upon the presence beneath the soil of the deified ancestor? I do not mean physically, as manure, for that idea is, of course, quite beyond the savage, but magically and supernaturally, as ghost and spirit. At first sight, to be sure, this seems a somewhat large and uncertain postulate. But if we reflect upon the nature of the evidence collected by Mr. Frazer, we shall see, I think, that the transition is a sufficiently simple and natural one. Primitive man may well have begun by scattering seeds as offerings on the graves of his relations. If these seeds germinated and grew successfully, as they would be pretty certain to do, he would at once, as if by instinct, accept the increase as the immediate gift of the dead ancestor. For he knows nothing beforehand about the nature of seeds or the laws of their germination. He doesn't even know, to start with, that seeds are necessary for the production of food plants. From this first step, however, it would be but a slight advance deliberately to produce and bury a god for the express purpose of fertilizing a sown crop. That gods were so produced, slain, and buried in fields, to insure fertility, we know now for certain. "The Kandhs," says Sir William Hunter, "have many deities—race gods, tribe gods, family gods, and a multitude of malignant spirits—each one of whom must be appeased with blood. But their great divinity is the earth god, who represents the productive energy of Nature. Twice each year, at sowing time and at harvest, and in all special seasons of distress, the earth god required a human sacrifice. The duty of providing the victims rested with the lower race of outcasts attached to the Kandh village. Brahmans and Kandhs were the only two classes exempted from being sacrificed; and an ancient rule ordained that the offering must be bought with a price. Men of the lower race, attached to the villages, kidnapped victims from the plains; and it was a mark of respectability for a Kandh hamlet to keep a small stock in reserve, as they said, 'to meet sudden demands for atonement.' The victim, on being brought to the hamlet, was welcomed at every threshold, daintily fed, and kindly treated, till the fatal day arrived. He was then solemnly sacrificed to the earth god; the Kandhs shouting in his dying ear: 'We bought you with a price; no sin rests with us.' His flesh and blood were distributed among the village lands, a fragment being solemnly buried in each field in the newly turned furrows."
This passage is sufficiently striking in itself as evidence for our purpose; but Mr. Frazer has further shown good grounds for believing that the meriah, or victim selected for this purpose, was not merely "daintily fed and kindly treated," but was also regarded by the Kandhs themselves in the light of a god or divine personage. Indeed, Kandhs in distress often sold their own children for victims, "considering the beatification of their souls certain, and their death for the benefit of mankind the most honorable possible." "The victims," says Mr. Frazer, "being regarded as consecrated beings, were treated with extreme affection mingled with deference, and were welcomed wherever they went. A meriah youth, on attaining maturity, was generally given a wife who was herself usually a meriah or victim, and with her he received a portion of land and farm stock. . . . The periodical sacrifices were generally arranged by tribes and divisions of tribes, so that each head of a family was enabled once a year to procure a shred of flesh for his fields, generally about the time when his chief crop was laid down."
Still more striking is the account of the way in which bits of the body were disposed of after the sacrifice. "Flesh cut from the victim was instantly taken home by the persons who had been deputed by each village to bring it. To secure its rapid arrival it was sometimes forwarded by relays of men, and conveyed with postal fleetness fifty or sixty miles. In each village, all who stayed at home fasted rigidly until the flesh arrived. The bearer deposited it in the place of public assembly, where it was received by the priest and the heads of families. The priest divided it into two portions, one of which he offered to the earth goddess by burying it in a hole in the ground, with his back turned, and without looking; then each man added a little earth to bury it, and the priest poured water on the spot from a full gourd." (Notice here the simulation of burial, the formation of a tumulus, and the pouring of libations.) "The other portion of flesh he divided into as many shares as there were heads of houses present. Each head of a house rolled his shred of flesh in leaves and buried it in his favorite field, placing it in the earth behind his back, and without looking." The remainder of the body—head, bones, and bowels—was afterward burned on a funeral pile. The ashes were scattered over the fields, laid as paste over the houses and granaries, or mixed with the new corn to preserve it from insects. Here we would seem to have the superposition of a custom derived from cremation on a still earlier rite derived from burial and the formation of the barrow.
Of all these ceremonies, Mr. Frazer rightly remarks that they can not be explained as merely parts of a propitiatory sacrifice. The burial of the flesh by each householder in his own fields implies that to the body of the meriah there was rather ascribed "a direct or intrinsic power of making the crops to grow." In other words, the flesh and ashes of the victim were believed to be endowed with a magical or physical power of fertilizing the land. Again, intrinsic supernatural power as an attribute of the meriah appears in the sovereign virtue believed to reside in anything that came from his person, as his hair or spittle. The ascription of such power to the meriah indicates that he was much more than a mere man sacrificed to propitiate an angry deity. Once more, the extreme reverence paid him would point to the same conclusion. Major Campbell speaks of the meriah as "being regarded as something more than mortal"; and Major Macpherson says that "a species of reverence which it is not easy to distinguish from adoration is paid to him." In short, by common consent of our authorities, the meriah appears to have been regarded as himself divine.
To a certain extent, then, I would venture to differ, with all deference and humility, as of a scholar toward his master, from Mr. Frazer, in the explanation which he gives of this and sundry kindred ceremonies. To him the human god, who is so frequently sacrified for the benefit of the crops, is envisaged as primarily the embodiment of vegetation; I would make bold to suggest, on the contrary, that the corn or other crop is rather itself regarded as the embodiment or ghost of the divine personage.
Here are some more very striking cases that look that way, extracted once more from Mr. Frazer's vast repertory: "A West African queen used to sacrifice a man and woman in the month of March. They were killed with spades and hoes, and their bodies buried in the middle of a field which had just been tilled. At Lagos, in Guinea, it was the custom annually to impale a young girl alive, soon after the spring equinox, in order to secure good crops. Along with her were sacrificed sheep and goats, which with yams, heads of maize, and plantains, were hung on stakes on each side of her. The victims were bred up for the purpose in the king's seraglio, and their minds had been so powerfully wrought upon by the fetich men that they went cheerfully to their fate. A similar sacrifice is still annually offered at Benin, Guinea. The Marimos, a Bechuana tribe, sacrifice a human being for the crops. The victim chosen is generally a short, stout man. He is seized by violence, or intoxicated, and taken to the fields, where he is killed among the wheat to serve as 'seed' (so they phrase it). After his blood has coagulated in the sun, it is burned along with the frontal bone, the flesh attached to it, and the brain; the ashes are then scattered over the ground to fertilize it. The rest of the body is eaten."
Now, it is true that in any case the identification of ghost and crop is very complete, for, as Mr. Frazer remarks, the Mexicans killed young victims for the young corn and old ones for the ripe corn. The Marimos thus sacrificed as "seed" a short fat man, the shortness of his stature corresponding to that of the young corn, his fatness to the condition which it is desired that the crops may attain. Again, says the same high authority, the identification of the victim with the corn comes out in the African custom of killing him with spades and hoes, and the Mexican custom of grinding him like corn between two stones. Still the point which I wish here particularly to suggest as important is, that cultivation may have begun on the actual tumuli of the dead, and that the annual god who was sacrificed for the fertility of the crops may have been, as it were, a deliberately designed and artificially produced deity, who replaced the ancestral spirit of early ages. Early man said to himself: "Food plants grew best where they grow on the grave of a divine chieftain: let us make such a grave in every field, and the spirit we put in it will insure fertility." Just as cultivation itself is a substitution of artificial for natural growth, so the annual slain god is, I believe, an artificial substitute for the natural dead chieftain in his sacrificial barrow.
As bearing once more on the supposed connection between ghosts and crops, which we shall presently see resolves itself later on into a connection between trees and crops, we might bring up the curious ceremony of the gardens of Adonis, which would seem to be a survival of the same idea that vegetation springs directly from the body of the divine person. The death of the Syrian god was annually lamented with bitter wailing by the women of the country. Images of Adonis, dressed to resemble corpses, and, no doubt, replacing the actual corpse of the original annual Adonis victim, as the Attis effigies replaced the original slain Attis, were carried out to burial, and then thrown into the sea or into springs of water. What is more noteworthy, however, is the fact that baskets or pots were filled with earth in which wheat, barley, lettuces, and various flowers—presumably anemones among the number—were sown and tended for eight days, chiefly by women. Fostered by the sun's heat, the plants shot up rapidly, but, having no depth of root, withered as rapidly away, and at the end of eight days were carried out with the images of the dead Adonis, and flung with them into the sea or into springs. We do not know whether these gardens were actually grown on the top of the effigies, but this would seem probable, says Mr. Frazer, from analogies elsewhere; for in Sicily the women, at the approach of Easter, sow wheat, lentils, and canary seed in plates, which are kept in the dark, and watered every second day. The plants shoot up quickly. The stalks are then tied together with red ribbons, and the plates containing them are placed on the sepulchres, which with effigies of the dead Christ are made up in Roman Catholic and Greek churches on Good Friday. In both these cases the plants would seem to be envisaged as springing from the actual body of the dead god. Indeed, Eustathius speaks of the gardens of Adonis as being placed on the grave of the hero.
Furthermore, another connection may be shown to exist between plants or trees and ghosts. We know that it is a frequent practice deliberately to put in herbs, shrubs, or trees on the graves of the dead. How far back in history or in savage life this practice may extend I am unfortunately not in a position to state. In Roman Catholic countries, however, the planting of flowers on the graves of the dead takes place usually on the jour des morts, a custom which would seem to argue for it an immense antiquity; for though it is usual among Catholics to explain the jour des morts as a féte of comparatively recent origin, definitely introduced by a particular saint at a particular period, its analogy to similar celebrations elsewhere shows that it is really a surviving relic of a very ancient form of Manes worship. In Algeria, again, I observed, the Arab women went on Fridays to plant flowers on the graves of their immediate dead; and the same point is noted about the same place by Miss Seguin. The koubbas, or little dome-shaped tombs of Mohammedan saints, so common throughout North Africa, are almost always inclosed by a low stone wall, which marks off the temenos, and are usually overshadowed by palm trees deliberately planted there.
All through southern Europe, indeed, the cypress is the common emblem of the grave and the churchyard, as the yew is in our more northern climates. And this connection brings me more directly into closer contact with our proper subject, the pine tree of Attis. I think there is evidence that from a very early age evergreens of one sort or another were planted upon barrows. Those who have read The Golden Bough will not fail to see the significance of this pregnant association. Evergreens are plants which retain their vegetation—show the life of their tree spirit—through the long sleep of winter. The mistletoe, as Mr. Frazer has ably shown, owes its special sanctity to the fact that it holds, as it were, the soul of the tree in itself, while all the branches around it are bare and lifeless. As soon, then, as primitive men had begun definitely to associate the ghost or god with the idea of vegetation, nothing could be more natural for them than to plant such evergreens on graves or barrows. Now all through southern England we find many examples of round barrows planted with Scotch firs. This is the more remarkable, as the Scotch fir is not considered by botanists an indigenous tree to southern Britain; nay, more, Mr. Darwin has shown that it can not live on open or exposed situations where deer or cattle graze unless it is protected by a fenced inclosure. Sheep and cows and stags nibble it down to the ground in its earliest ages, so that Scotch firs may be found in open spaces on English heaths, showing many annual rings of growth, but eaten close to the soil by the ever-active herbivores. Hence we must conclude (since barrows stand for the most part in extremely open, heathy country) that not only were the Scotch firs deliberately planted on the tumuli, but also that they were carefully protected by fences till a relatively late or even historical period. A particularly fine example of a round barrow overgrown with ancient Scotch firs is to be found near St. Martha's Chapel at Guildford. Another, a little less striking, but equally characteristic, stands on the summit of Milton Heath, near Dorking. It is faced on the opposite side of the road by a second and extremely degraded barrow, also marked by a conspicuous clump of pine trees. A group of very ancient and gnarled Scotch firs, known as the Glory, on the hill just behind Dorking to the south, forms another and still more noble example of the same combination. But I need not labor the point. Whoever knows our southern counties knows that barrows and Scotch firs go together almost universally. Indeed, I believe there are no very old firs in Surrey, Kent, or Hampshire that do not so stand on antique tumuli.
Now, as these trees are not indigenous to southern England, and as they could only have grown under the protection of a fence, I conclude that the ancestors of the existing firs were planted there when the barrows were first formed, were long secured from harm by a belief in their sanctity, and have kept up their race ever since, either by seeds or shoots, under cover of the old trees, to the present day. The Scotch fir is in England the sacred tree of the barrows.
Have we here, then, I would venture to ask, the origin of the sacred pine tree of Attis? I incline to believe that we have. As the pine tree is planted upon tumuli in many parts of the world, and is often protected by walls or hedges, it would seem to be naturally associated with the ghost, and to become, in the expressive phrase used by Mr. Macdonald, the "prayer tree" of the departed.
This, then, I take it, is the true explanation of the prominent part which the pine tree plays in the myth and ritual of Attis. Nor is it any objection to our view that Attis is also apparently envisaged in an alternative form both as a man or god, and as an embodied corn spirit. Such frank inconsistencies, which to us would seem fatal to the success of any theory, appear perfectly natural to the easy-going mind of primitive man. To him, the ghost may reasonably appear in any one of many alternative forms. He recognizes it equally in the snake that glides from under the stones of the tumulus, in the beast or bird that crosses his path after the offering of prayer to his deified ancestor, in the shadowy form that eludes his prying gaze amid the dense shades of the primeval forest, and in the vague human shape that stands beside him in his dreams, and whispers into his ear uncertain warnings or dim promises for the future. So, too, with plants. From one point of view, Attis is the corn that springs directly from the dead god's body; but from another point of view he is the pine tree that grows with waving boughs above the grassy barrow of the self-slain or self-devoted hero. Whatever comes from the dead body, whatever seems to stand in close relation to it, is regarded in the simple philosophy of these naïf worshipers as an embodiment or representative of the multiform deity. Thus, in the extant descriptions of the ceremonies of the Attis festival, we get traces or glimpses of every one in turn among these alternative conceptions. Attis is first of all envisaged as a human being—a young man who dies a violent death in a particular fashion. This death by self-mutilation seems to point to a further development of the same idea which lies at the bottom of the Kandh practice of buying the victim and paying for him with a price—namely, it implies a certain obvious element of consent and self-sacrifice—a realization of the principle that "it is expedient that one man should die for the people." So the West African victims, we are told, went gladly to their doom; and so, too, in Phœnician and Carthaginian history we often find that in great crises of the state young men of good family volunteered to devote themselves as victims to Baal on behalf of the fatherland. Once more, after his death, Attis is changed into a pine tree; and his festival is inaugurated by cutting down just such a pine tree in the woods, which is accepted as in a certain sense the embodiment and representative of the dead Attis. But still the human embodiment remains side by side to the end with the vegetable one; for the effigy of a young man is also attached to the middle of the tree, as the young man himself was no doubt attached in still earlier practice. All this is comprehensible enough when we recollect that the original corn and the original pine tree may actually have grown out of the body or barrow of the self-devoted man god in earlier times, and that the ceremonies described for us by late classical writers represent very mitigated and modified forms of extremely ancient and savage rites.
There is also an interesting transitional stage, it seems to me, between tree worship pure and simple and its offspring, grove worship. This transition from the special cult of the single tree to the general cult of the wood or forest, comes about, I take it, through the medium of the temenos. And what is the temenos? Well, I think, we get the first clew toward an answer to that question in Mr. William Simpson's brilliant identification of the temple and the tomb, already so well foreshadowed by Mr. Herbert Spencer. For if the temple is only a magnified tomb where offerings on a large scale are habitually made to the sainted ghost or the deified ancestor, then clearly the temenos is just the representative of the inclosed space surrounded by a wall about the primitive barrow. In the center stands the temple—that is to say, the actual tomb itself; all round it stand the sacred trees planted upon or about the holy grave, and regarded as the actual representatives of the deified hero. These trees form, I think, the great link of transition to the sacred grove. For when once people had grown accustomed to the prime idea that certain trees were to be considered as sacred from their close connection with a deified ancestor, it would be but a slight and natural step to regard other trees as sacred because they stood near a holy site, or even to manufacture an artificial sanctity by planting trees about a cenotaph temple. Thus, when Xenophon, for instance, built a temple to Artemis, and planted around it a grove of many kinds of fruit trees, and placed in it an altar and an image of the goddess, nobody for one moment would pretend to suppose that he erected it over the body of an actual dead Artemis. But the point is, that men would never have begun building temples and consecrating groves at all, if they had not first built houses for the dead god-chief, and planted trees and shrubs and flowers and gardens upon his venerated tumulus.
And this point leads me up to an important qualification. It is not necessarily true—nay, it is demonstrably false—that every individual god was originally a dead man. In late stages of culture, gods are quite unmistakably manufactured out of abstractions, as when the Roman Senate decreed in due form the erection of a temple to the purely factitious goddess Concordia. But nobody could ever have thought of making Concordia or any other like abstraction into a deity, unless they had been first thoroughly familiarized with the idea of many gods, derived originally from the deified ancestor or chief, and unless also these gods had already been envisaged as "departmental"—that is to say, as possessing certain definitely distributed functions and prerogatives over certain particular actions or portions of Nature. The possession of such special prerogatives, however, does not in the least militate against the primitive humanity of such departmental gods; for the Christian saints have often similar prerogatives, and we know with certainty that most at least of the Christian saints were originally ordinary men and women.
To put it briefly, though there are individual gods who need not necessarily once have been individual men, there could be no such thing as the idea of a god except as the reflex of the ghost of man in general.
So, too, with temples. While it is almost certainly true that temples as a whole originate, as Mr. William Simpson has so abundantly proved, from the tomb of the deified chief or hero, it is also undoubtedly true that certain temples exist in later stages of culture which are, to use once more the phrase I employed above, cenotaph shrines. But these cenotaph shrines could never have come into existence at all unless men's minds had already long been habituated to the idea of worship at the actual tomb-shrine.
It is the same, again, with sacred stones. These, as I have endeavored to show elsewhere, owe their sanctity at first to the standing stones erected over the remains and tumuli of the dead. But in course of time prayer offered at the grave comes readily to be regarded as prayer offered to the visible and tangible object then and there present—the stone that crowns and tops the barrow. Ghee or oil poured out for the ghost comes readily to be regarded as offered rather to the stone itself than to the person whose grave it marks and commemorates. Especially will this confusion exist in the mind of the worshiper when the worship is of old date, and the personality of the deceased has been long forgotten. It is very early ancestors who become the great gods of later generations. Still no one could ever have dreamed of offering up food or preferring requests to a lifeless stone, unless he and his predecessors had long been accustomed to look upon similar stones as the dwelling places of his ancestors. But nowadays, when the sanctity of certain stones is already a well-established article of belief, the people of southern India—to take a particular instance—artificially manufacture sacred stones by setting them up in their fields, painting them red (a substitute for blood libations), and pouring offerings of oil or ghee on top of them. That is to say, they treat certain casual stones, which have no rational connection at all with their ancestral spirits, in exactly the same way in which they or their predecessors have been in the habit of treating the graves of their forefathers.
A like evolution has taken place, I believe, in the case of sacred trees and sacred groves. I do not mean for a moment to assert, or even to suggest, that every individual sacred tree grows or ever grew on the grave of a dead person. But I do mean to say that, so far as I can see, the notion of the sanctity of trees or plants could only have arisen in the first place from the reverence paid to trees or plants which actually sprang from the remains of the dead, and so were regarded, like everything else that came out of the tomb, as embodiments or avatars of the dead man's spirit. Once such sanctity came to be generally recognized, however, it could be readily transferred to other conspicuous or remarkable trees, or even to trees in general, and particularly to the special groves or plantations that surrounded temples, whether mortuary or cenotaphic.
Yet in every case, when we go back far enough in time, or, what comes practically to the same thing, when we go down low enough in culture toward the savage level of primitive man, we find always that we stand nearer face to face with these the earliest naked realities of religion—that the ghost counts for most; that the temple has not progressed beyond the stage of the hut or underground dwelling; that the sacred stone is still the actual tombstone; that the altar is still the actual grave slab; that the sacred tree is still directly and intimately connected with the ghost or the tumulus.
[To be continued.]
- From The Attis of Caius Valerius Catullus. Translated into English Verse, with Dissertations on the Myth of Attis, on the Origin of Tree Worship, and on the Galliambic Metre, by Grant Allen, B. A., formerly Postmaster of Merton College, Oxford. London: David Nutt. 1892.
- Turner's Samoa, p. 63.
- Chalmers. Work and Adventure in New Guinea, p. 85.
- Rev. A. Stewart. Nether Lochaber, pp. 20, 21.
- Africana, vol. i, p. 89.
- Africana, vol. i, p. 95.
- Imperial Gazetteer of India, vol. vii, p. 207.
- Frazer, ubi supra, vol. i, p. 385, quoting Macpherson, Memorials of Service in India, p. 115.
- The Golden Bough, vol. i, p. 385
- The Golden Bough, vol. i, p. 383.
- The Golden Bough, vol. i, p. 295.
- Walks in Algiers, p. 280.
- Darwin, Origin of Species, p. 56.